Now That You're Here
Zander waited until Brian and Justin were gone before turning to Chris and taking him in his arms. “I don’t know what we did to earn another night alone, but I’m liking it.”
“Zan, we need to talk,” Chris said softly as he looked deep into Zander’s eyes.
“Oh crap, I don’t like the sound of that. Can we put off any serious discussions until after we go for a relaxing swim? I spent the last four hours trying to keep up with a teenager, and as much as I hate to admit it, it wasn’t easy.”
Chris wanted to refuse. Ever since ending the affair and deciding to tell Zander, he’d been anxious to be honest and get everything out of the open, but he looked so cute admitting that he couldn’t keep up with Justin that Chris didn’t have the heart to say no. “Okay, we’ll swim first and then we’ll talk.”
“Thanks, Babe. I’m going to go change.” Zander kissed Chris quickly and then headed for the bedroom, leaving Chris feeling guiltier than ever. Zander was happy, and Chris hated that he was going to ruin that.
Two hours later, both men were showered and dressed and curled up on the couch together. Chris had been rehearsing different speeches over and over again in his head, but he still wasn’t sure what he was going to say. It was killing him to know the pain he was about to cause the other man.
“Hey, are you hungry? I could fix us something to eat,” Zander suggested as he looked up at Chris. “What are you in the mood for?”
“I’m not hungry. Could we just sit here and talk?”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. You had something on your mind that you wanted to talk about. Go ahead. I’m listening.”
“Zan, you know how much I love you, right?” Chris began.
“Of course. I love you, too.”
“I know, but see…something happened. I swear to God, I didn’t plan it, but it happened. And I’m so sorry…I mean…I never want to do anything to hurt you…”
Zander felt like his chest was going to burst. “What do you mean something happened? What exactly happened, Chris?”
Chris took a deep breath. “There’s this guy from the paper…”
Zander jumped up from the couch and turned to stare at Chris in horror. “There’s a guy?”
“Babe, just sit down so we can talk.” Chris stood up and reached for Zander, but the man pulled away and crossed the room, putting plenty of distance between them. “Just let me explain.”
“Let you explain what, exactly? That you cheated on me? That you shoved aside almost nine years together for a quick fuck?”
“Zan, please. It wasn’t like that.”
“It wasn’t like that? Really? Then what was it like exactly, Chris? Tell me exactly how it was that you were able to go out and screw some other guy! I really want to know!” Zander exclaimed.
“Okay, I know you’re upset…”
“Upset? Me? Upset? Why would I be upset? So tell me, was it a one time thing?” The guilty expression that crossed Chris’s face told Zander what he needed to know. “How long? How long has this been going on?”
Chris sighed. “Since the accident.”
“The accident,” Zan repeated as he began pacing. “So, how did this work? Did he meet you at the hospital? Were you fucking in some supply closet while your brother laid in a bed fighting for his life?”
“Zan, please just sit down so we can talk about this. I know you have questions and I’ll answer every one of them, I promise. The most important thing is that I know it was a huge mistake and it’s over.”
“Who is he?” Zander asked. His tone was relatively civil in spite of his pain and anger.
“He was just some guy at work,” Chris admitted. “But it really is over now. And I left the paper so I won’t even see him again.”
“Is that supposed to make everything better?” Zander’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “You were fucking some guy behind my back for weeks, but it’s over now so we’re just supposed to forget it ever happened and move on?”
“No, I’m not saying that.”
“Good, because that’s not going to happen. That can’t happen.” Zander turned at the French doors that led to the patio and stared outside to where the sun was beginning to set. Normally the view calmed him, but not at this moment. At this moment his chest was so tight, filled with a pain that he never knew existed. A pain that ran deeper than anything he’d ever felt before. The man he loved more than anyone else in the world had betrayed him in the worst way, and he didn’t know what to do about it.
Chris walked up behind Zan and placed a hand on his shoulder, only to have him pull away. It killed him to know that he was the cause of the pain in Zander’s usually bright blue eyes. “Zan,”
“Don’t touch me.” Zander stated coolly.
“I’m sorry,” Chris whispered. “Why don’t we just sit down and…”
“I’m leaving.” Zander turned, swallowing the sob that rose in his throat as he looked up into Chris’s eyes. “I can’t be here with you right now.”
“Okay, I know that you need a little time alone. Why don’t I go take a drive or something and then when I get back, we can…”
“No Chris, I mean I’m packing a bag and I’m leaving,” Zander explained with an eerie sense of calm. “I think it’s best if we took some time apart to think about what it is that we both want.”
“I don’t need time. I know exactly what I want. I want you, I want us,” Chris insisted.
“Yeah, well I’m not sure we both want the same things anymore,” Zander replied tearfully. “I’ll go get my things. Please don’t follow me.”
Chris watched numbly as Zander walked down the hall to pack his things and then closed his eyes, his heart aching with pain. He wasn’t sure how he was going to watch his partner walk out the front door, knowing that their future together was now in question. How could he have let this happen? How could he have let himself risk the best thing that ever happened to him? He dropped down on the couch and covered his face, fighting to keep his tears away.
Zander walked into the room he and Chris shared and dropped down on the edge of the bed. How did this happen? When Chris had said that they needed to talk, he never once thought it was going to be about something like this. It never occurred to him that Chris would sleep with someone else. Maybe he was foolish, but he always felt secure in the love that he and Chris shared. Now he couldn’t help but wonder if it was all a lie. Maybe the last eight years were nothing more than make-believe and now it was time to move on. The pain that gripped his chest was unbearable and all he wanted to do was turn back time. He wanted to be able to go back to the moments before Chris broke his heart into a million pieces. Was that asking for too much?
He continued to sit there for a few more minutes while he thought about his next move. He needed to pack his things. Not everything…he didn’t need to take everything with him at the moment. No, he just needed enough clothes to get through the next week or so. By then he should have an idea of what the future held. As much as he hated to even think it, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to forgive Chris for his indiscretion. He wasn’t sure if there was even a chance that he and Chris could work things out and be together again. He just wasn’t sure about anything anymore.
Pulling himself together, he grabbed a bag out of the closet and started grabbing the things he needed. It didn’t take long. Clothes, toiletries, his phone charger…he even grabbed the picture of him and Chris that they kept in a frame on the nightstand, but then he decided against packing it. He didn’t want to take any reminders of Chris with him. The memories he had were more than enough. Once he was sure he had everything, he zipped up the bag and headed back down the hall. Chris was sitting on the couch with his head back and his eyes shut. Zander could clearly see that his cheeks were damp with tears. For a split second, he felt the need to go over and comfort the other man, but then he stopped himself. Chris wasn’t the victim. Chris didn’t deserve to be comforted when he was the one to cause all the pain in the first place. Right then, Chris looked up and their eyes met.
“Is there anything I can say to make this even the slightest bit better?” Chris asked softly.
“No,” Zander replied honestly.
“Would you rather I left? I mean, I’m the one who…”
“No, that’s okay. I don’t think I could bear sitting in this house among all the memories.”
Chris hesitated before he asked the one question that he feared the answer to most. “Will you be back?”
Zander thought before replying. “I don’t know, Chris. I honestly don’t know. Tell Justin I’ll call him tomorrow.” He took one last look at Chris and then headed towards the door, needing to escape. He was just about to walk outside when he heard Chris’s voice behind him.
“You know that I love you, right?”
“I know,” Zander replied in a low, tormented voice. “I love you, too. I just don’t know if it’s going to be enough.”
And with that, Zander walked out the door without looking back.
It was almost midnight when Brian pulled the jeep into the driveway. He immediately noticed that Zander’s car was gone and hoped that it didn’t mean what he thought it meant.
“Zander’s car isn’t here,” Justin said, voicing Brian’s concern.
“I know. Maybe they went out together?”
“Do you think that’s what happened?”
“No,” Brian admitted. “Come on, let’s go find out.”
They walked inside and went to the living room, finding Chris sitting in the almost dark room alone. Brian walked over and sat down alongside his brother, knowing without asking how the evening had gone. The silence was deafening until Chris finally spoke up.
“Justin, he said he’d call you tomorrow.”
“Oh, okay,” that wasn’t what Justin had expected.
“Are you okay?” Brian asked softly.
“Actually, no I’m not,” Chris replied, surprised at how gravelly his voice sounded after hours of non-use. He looked up at Brian then, his expression so sad that it broke his brother’s heart. “I don’t know if he’s ever coming back.”
Brian took Chris in his arms and held him tightly, looking at Justin over his shoulder for comfort. “Shhh…don’t think about that now. He’s in shock, but I’m sure you guys will find a way to work it out.”
“I’m not so sure. Bri, you didn’t see the pain in his eyes. The disgust as he realized how I’d betrayed him. And who can blame him? Zander can get any man he wants and deserves the best. Why would he bother wasting his time with someone like me?”
“Chris, don’t say that,” Justin said as he walked up to the pair and started rubbing Chris’s back. Zander may be his cousin, but Justin had known them for the same amount of time and he loved them both. As much as his heart went out to Zander for what he was going through, his heart broke at the sight of Chris looking so sad and defeated. “You made a mistake. You’re human. Zander will see that and forgive you.”
“I wish I could be so sure, but thanks, Justin,” Chris replied as he pulled out of Brian’s embrace. “Why don’t you two go on up to bed? I’ll be fine and I’d like to be alone for awhile.”
“Yeah sure,” Brian agreed. “But I’ll be right upstairs if you need me.”
Chris waited until the boys were gone before getting up and going to the bedroom. As soon as he turned on the light and looked around at the space he and Zander shared, the tears started again. He still couldn’t believe that he screwed up so bad. Unlike a lot of his friends, Chris never had trouble with monogamy. When he and Zander started seeing each other, he had no trouble what-so-ever with giving up anonymous sex. And in the last eight plus years, he never once even contemplated sleeping with another man until Ryan, and even then it wasn’t an issue until the accident when he felt so scared and alone.
Forcing those thoughts from his mind, Chris stripped down, pulled on a pair of sweats and grabbed a pillow and blanket. He couldn’t bring himself to lay down in bed without Zander by his side. Once he was as comfortable as possible on the couch, he pulled up memories of when he and Zan had first met and focused on them until exhaustion took over and he drifted off to sleep.
Zander was lying on the bed in his hotel room, staring at the ceiling when his phone signaled that he had a text message. He thought about ignoring it, but he figured he’d better just see who it was from in case Brian or Justin needed him. He grabbed his phone off the nightstand. It was from Justin.
‘I’m sorry. Call me if you need me. I’m here for you.’
Zander smiled slightly and he responded with a simple thank you. Justin was such a good kid. It was so easy to see both of his parents influence on him. He put the phone back on the nightstand and went back to watching the ceiling. He didn’t know what else to do. He had spent the last four hours crying until there were no more tears left to cry and he wasn’t feeling any better. He had an overwhelming sadness that was threatening to suffocate him and he didn’t know what to do about it. He tried distracting himself by watching TV, but he couldn’t seem to focus on what was happening in front of him. His mind kept drifting back to Chris and his confession. He still couldn’t wrap his mind around what had happened. He couldn’t understand how Chris could care so little about them and their life together that he would throw it all away for sex with some work acquaintance.
But what upset him the most was realizing that all the trust that he had in Chris was now gone forever. He knew that Chris wanted to work things out. He could see the regret and shame in his features and knew that he’d do anything to fix the mistakes he made, but Zander didn’t know if that was even possible. Even if he wanted to salvage their relationship, he wasn’t sure how to do that when he’d never be able to completely trust Chris again. There would now always be a voice in the back of his head questioning Chris at every turn. How was he supposed to live like that? Why would he even want to?
As the night passed and the sun began to rise, Zander started thinking about what he needed to do next. Regardless of whether or not he thought he and Chris could eventually work things out, he needed to have a plan for the immediate future. He waited until after nine and then grabbed his cell phone, barely feeling the effects of a sleepless night. He scrolled though his phonebook until he found what he was looking for and then dialed the number.
“Hello?” came the sleepy voice.
“Hey, Jules, did I wake you?”
“Zan? Um…no…I mean, well yeah but it’s okay. I should’ve been up an hour ago. What’s up? Is everything okay?”
“Not really,” Zander replied. “Listen, is that apartment in your building still vacant.”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Do you think your landlord would be willing to rent month to month?”
“Probably. It’s been vacant for more than six months. I think he’d be thrilled just to have someone living there. Why? Who’s looking for an apartment?”
“You? You mean you and Chris?”
“No, just me.”
“What? Why? What happened?”
Zander chuckled at Jules near hysteria. “Jules, take a deep breath. Chris and I are just having some problems and we need a little time alone. That’s all.”
“If that’s all, then why don’t you just crash at my place?” Jules asked knowingly.
“Okay, maybe it’s a little more serious than that, but it’s alright. I just need a place to crash right now. One night in a hotel room was enough.”
“You’re at a hotel? Oh Zan, why didn’t you call me? You could’ve stayed here.”
“I just needed to be alone. Listen, do you think you could get in touch with your landlord for me? I’m kind of desperate to find a place to stay.”
“Yeah, I’ll call him now. He and I…well, we’ve gotten pretty close lately. We even went out to dinner on Friday night. I’m sure he’d be willing to help you out. Check out of that hotel and get your ass over here,” she insisted.
“Thanks Jules, you’re a lifesaver.”
By noon, Zander had an apartment of his own. The landlord was more than willing to rent month to month, as long as Zander was willing to either switch to a yearlong lease or vacate if someone showed interest in renting the place. It was fully furnished, so Zander was able to move right in. All he had to do was make a quick trip to the store for the few things that weren’t supplied, such as towels and bedding. Jules had insisted that he join her for dinner so they could talk about what had happened, so as soon as he got back from shopping, he got busy setting everything up. Keeping busy kept him from thinking about Chris and their situation and Zander welcomed the distraction.
He finished setting everything up by 4:30 and had an hour to spare before he had to head upstairs for dinner with Jules. He grabbed his phone and called Justin.
“Hey, how are you?” Justin answered, obviously having looked at the caller ID.
“I’m hanging in there,” Zander replied. “What are you up to?”
“I was just working on the store’s website. We’ve got a shitload of orders to fill. Do you want me to come in tomorrow and help you get them out? School’s closed for the week, remember?”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. Well, if you want to. I can always use your help.”
Justin could hear the sadness in Zander’s voice and it broke his heart. “Zan, are you really okay?”
“No, but I will be. Listen, I don’t know what the appropriate protocol is for a situation like this. I’ve rented a two bedroom apartment. I’ve got plenty of room if you want to come and stay here with me, but I’ll understand if you don’t want to be uprooted.”
“You rented an apartment? Zan, are you really not going to forgive Chris? I mean, I know what he did was wrong, but it was a mistake. Don’t you think you should try working things out with him?” Justin asked as he tried to keep his panic in check.
“Jus, I don’t know what’s going to happen between Chris and me. I just know that I need to be on my own right now and I didn’t want to be forced to stay in a hotel. It’s too expensive and too impersonal. It’s a month to month lease so I’m not locked into anything long term. A friend of mine lives upstairs and talked the landlord into giving me the place,” Zander explained. “So, do you want to come stay with me or not? Don’t feel obligated. I won’t be upset if you chose to stay where you are right now.”
Justin didn’t know how to answer that. He wanted to be with Zander. He hated the thought of him being all alone in some rundown apartment. On the other hand, he didn’t want to leave Brian. They didn’t have much time together as it was. The last thing he wanted to do was give up their alone time at night before bed. “Could I maybe go back and forth?”
“Justin, it’s okay if you’d rather…”
“No, it’s not that I don’t want to be there with you. I do. It’s just that sometimes Brian and I are so busy that the only time we have together is right before bed. If I’m not here…” Justin trailed off.
“I get it and I understand. Look, there’s no pressure. You’re welcome here anytime you want. Brian too, for that matter. I’ll talk to him at the shop tomorrow, but I don’t want him thinking that just because Chris and I are having problems, I don’t want to see him. He’s like the little brother I never had. I don’t want that to change.”
“He doesn’t, either. So, do you want me to come by tonight? We could talk about things. Maybe I can help.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather you didn’t tonight. I promised my friend Jules that I’d have dinner with her and then I’m coming back here and going to bed. I haven’t been asleep yet.”
“Zan, you have to take care of yourself. It won’t help anyone if you get sick,” Justin reprimanded gently.
“I know. It wasn’t intentional. I just had a lot on my mind last night and I’ve been pretty busy today getting everything taken care of. I have no doubt that I’ll pass out the minute my head hits the pillow.”
“Alright. I guess I’ll see you in the morning, then. But I meant what I said in my text last night. I’m here if you need me. All you have to do is pick up the phone,” Justin reminded him.
“Thanks, Jus. I appreciate that. I’ll see you guys in the morning.”
Justin disconnected the call and then sat on his bed and stared at his phone. He really wished there was something that he could do to fix the mess of Chris and Zander’s relationship. Chris had been moping around the house all day looking like death, and Justin would bet his life on the fact that Zander looked just as bad. With a loud sigh, he got up and headed downstairs, finding Brian and Chris in the living room watching a movie.
“I just got off the phone with Zan.”
“You did?” Chris asked as he sat up and looked at Justin expectantly. “Is he alright? Is he coming home?”
“He’s okay, I guess,” Justin said softly. “But he’s not planning on coming home anytime soon.”
“Did he say that?” Brian asked.
“He…uh…told me that he rented an apartment,” Justin admitted.
“Oh God,” Chris groaned.
“It’s a month to month lease so it’s not like he’s made any long term decisions. Chris, I think he just needs a little time alone to figure things out, you know? I’m sure he’s going to miss you too much to stay away for long.”
“Did he even ask about me?”
“No,” Justin murmured. “I’m so sorry, Chris.”
“It’s not your fault,” Chris replied sadly. “It’s mine. I think I’m going to go lay down for awhile.”
“What about the movie?” Brian called after him.
“Just finish watching it. I don’t know what’s going on anyway.”
Justin dropped down alongside Brian and sighed. “I feel so bad. I wish there was something I could do to fix this. Zander sounds so down and Chris…I hate seeing him like this.”
“I know. Did Zander say anything about how long he plans on being gone?”
“No. Truthfully, I don’t think he knows. He asked me to move in with him.” When Justin saw Brian’s face pale, he laughed. “Relax. I’m not moving, but I am planning on spending some nights there. I don’t want to leave you, but I also don’t want to think about him being alone every night either.”
“Yeah, I don’t want that either,” Brian said. “I don’t even want to think about going to the store tomorrow. I don’t know what to say to him.”
“Just keep it cool and play it by ear. You know, he said that he thinks of you as a little brother and that he doesn’t want you thinking that he doesn’t want to see you because he and Chris are having problems. I think our best option right now is to be there if either of them needs us, but otherwise stay out of it. Their relationship has nothing to do with us.”
“You’re right. I don’t want to get in the middle of this. So, do you want to go do something? I think the gang is going down to the river.”
“Why don’t you go without me? I’m kind of tired and I think I just want to stay home,” Justin said.
“Want me to stay home with you?” Brian offered.
“No, that’s okay. You go ahead. I’ll see you when you get home.”
“Alright.” Brian got up and turned off the TV and then took Justin in his arms, kissing him deeply. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Justin went back upstairs and finished up the work on the website. Then he grabbed his sketch pad, climbed into bed and spent the rest of his night working on drawings for Mr. James. He was sound asleep long before Brian got home.
End of part 32
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